Rembrandt exhibit celebrates major bequest

In this video made shortly before his death, Emile Mathis sits down with his partner Ron Dunnett to talk about Emile’s multimillion-dollar gift to UWM.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee will recognize a multimillion-dollar bequest of artworks with an exhibition of 30 Rembrandt etchings at the university’s Art History Gallery, room 154, Mitchell Hall, 3203 N. Downer Ave.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), Self portrait in velvet cap with plume, 1638, etching. Emile H. Mathis II Print collection, UWM Art Collection

The exhibition, “Rembrandt Etchings: States, Fakes and Restrikes,” opens to the public at a reception in the gallery on Thursday, Sept. 6, from 5-7 p.m., and runs through Sept. 27. Regular gallery hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Thursday. Admission is free. The exhibition will focus on the differences between etchings made during the artist’s lifetime (first-state pulls) and those made later (restrikes). (Read more about the exhibition below.)

The Rembrandt etchings were given by Emile H. Mathis II, a Racine art connoisseur, collector and dealer who died July 15. His bequest, which includes two major art collections, is the largest of its kind ever made to the UWM Art Collection.

The Mathis collection includes more than 1,700 works on paper spanning 500 years, and more than 500 pieces of African art from the 20th century. The bequest also includes funds to renovate and expand UWM’s Art History Gallery, which will be renamed the Emile Mathis II Gallery.

The works on paper consist of prints by many renowned artists, including Rembrandt, Whistler, Warhol, Rauschenberg, Dine and others. This collection is one of the most comprehensive of its type in Wisconsin, according to Linda Brazeau, curator of the UWM Art Collection.

Male Nail Fetish Figure

Male Nail Fetish Figure, Chokwe, Zaire, from the UWM Art Collection, Gift of Emile H. Mathis II

The Mathis collection of African art is also stunning in its breadth and depth, according to Kenneth Bendiner, chair of UWM’s Art History Department. From kente cloth to passport masks to sculpture, the collection represents nearly every country on the western and northern coasts of Africa.

Bendiner noted that “with the addition of the Mathis donation, the number of objects in the UWM Art Collection, presently 4,500 works of art, is nearly doubled, and the Collections’ range of holdings is significantly enriched. The Mathis gift, which includes prints from the 15th century to the present, will, like the UWM Art Collection as a whole, be put to use as a teaching tool, giving students the opportunity to work closely with works of art.”

“The impact of this gift is transformational,” said Chancellor Michael R. Lovell. “We are honored that Emile Mathis chose to make this gift to UWM.  Both collections will cement UWM’s reputation as a top resource for Master’s prints and African artifacts,” he added.

Mathis told university officials that he wanted his prized collection to be used for teaching and learning, and displayed for years to come. “The thing that really excites me is that it’s going to be used as a hands-on collection, both the works on paper and the sculpture,” he said in an interview shortly before his death. “It will be not only a legacy,” he said, but also a strong collection that students could not only study, but work with. “Had I had those opportunities in college or university…wow.”

“The gifts that Emile has given to the College of Letters & Science are measurable in more than just dollars and cents,” said Rodney Swain, dean of the college, which houses the Art History program and gallery. “A collection of this size and scope will provide new and better learning opportunities for our students, and a more visible art gallery will give the community easy access to his artistic treasures from around the globe.

“This is a gift that will impact not just our college but the entire campus, city and region for decades to come. We are thankful and honored that Emile and his family entrusted us to build on his legacy as an art lover and passionate advocate for art education and appreciation.”

Emile H. Mathis II (seated) with UWM College of Letter & Science dean Rodney Swain and Linda Brazeau, Curator, UWM Art Collection.

Mathis was a highly regarded art connoisseur, collector, dealer and curator, as well as a community activist and philanthropist. He began collecting artworks while in high school and continued to be actively involved in acquisitions and sales throughout his life. He established the Mathis Gallery in Racine nearly 40 years ago, after starting his professional career with London Fine Arts, the largest international distributor of graphics at that time.

Mathis was a founding member of the Downtown Racine Development Corporation and the City of Racine Design Review Commission, was active on numerous boards and led major charitable events in Racine. He was awarded lifetime membership in Preservation Racine in recognition of his strong community preservation efforts. Mathis, who earned his bachelor’s degree in fine arts at UW-Superior, established and donated to scholarships, and contributed to museums and art organizations in Wisconsin and beyond.

About the Exhibition

In his day, Rembrandt van Rijn was better known for his etchings than his paintings. He was one of the most influential printmakers in the history of art, creating etchings reflecting a wide range of subjects, from scriptural scenes to studies of street life.

The UWM exhibition looks at the issues involved in identifying and authenticating Rembrandt’s original and posthumous prints.

Etching is a process in which the artist works a design into an acid-resistant coating on a metal printing plate; the plate is then exposed to acid, which etches the plate where the metal is exposed, to create lines and dark areas when inked and pressed. When the etching is pulled – or lifted from the print plate or a block – the print is revealed.

Museums, art historians, collectors, auction houses and art dealers often must determine whether an etching was produced during Rembrandt’s lifetime, or posthumously, or altered, or damaged, or is an outright forgery. This exhibition illustrates the methods by which such determinations can be made.